The main white political parties still pursued the chimera of ‘a white man’s land’. Black people formed a growing urban presence. By 1912 there were already 420 000 blacks in the towns and cities in the common or ‘white’ area, a third of South Africa’s urban population and 13% of the total black population. Shantytowns were springing up rapidly on the outskirts of the cities. The white municipalities ran these shantytowns in an unplanned way, usually making a profit; the residents themselves got little in return for their rent and taxes. Serious diseases like tuberculosis found an ideal breeding ground in the unsanitary and overcrowded hovels.
Smuts could not square this with his idea of whites acting as the trustees of blacks. He said: ‘The natives have come to our towns unprovided for. They have picked up our diseases, and have found our white civilisation a curse to them . . . The Native question is so large. We know so little about it.’ He believed that proper housing and proper control of blacks in the urban areas was an obligation of the state. If it accepted this obligation, South Africa would remove ‘one of the biggest blots resting on our civilisation’.
In the meantime further segregationist pressures had built up. In 1922 a Transvaal local government commission headed by Colonel C.F. Stallard, one of the most prominent English-speaking segregationists, proposed that blacks were required in the urban areas only to ‘minister to the needs of whites’ and must depart from there when they ‘ceased so to minister’.
Smuts depended on the judgment of his friend and leading Cape liberal, F.S. Malan, Minister of Mines, who probably had a leading hand in the bills dealing with urban blacks drafted between 1917 and 1923. Malan did not assume that collectively blacks constituted a threat. He had a vision of native ‘villages’ where black people who were ‘civilised could feel at home and develop’. Because of their stake in the status quo they could become a bulwark against labour unrest and political agitation. Meeting an African delegation in 1920, he promised a better deal for regular and ‘reliable’ black workers, better housing and exemptions from the pass laws.
Smuts allowed Malan to speak in these terms because he himself believed in ‘class legislation’. Such laws distinguished between the ‘ordinary native’, who had not yet emerged from ‘barbarism’, and the more ‘advanced’ blacks, who could take control of their own social problems in villages of their own. The Native Urban Areas Bill that the Smuts government submitted to a consultative Native Conference in 1923 envisaged that settled blacks could acquire freehold property. It aimed to improve the administration of black residential areas.
But white politics had reached the stage where any such improvement would be seen as undermining the claim to a white man’s land. Barry Hertzog spelled out the claim in 1922: ‘The [native] gets his own territory where all rights would be granted to him. He can live in our land, but can demand no rights here. The opposite is also true.’ If blacks could get freehold property, acquiring ‘white man’s land’, they would soon demand ‘the white man’s vote’. And that would be ‘a matter of life and death for white civilisation’.
Smuts caved in and the provision to grant property rights was withdrawn from this bill, which was passed and promulgated as the Native Urban Areas Act. Confronted by an angry delegation from the South African Native National Congress, he pointed to the Bloemfontein location, where no freehold existed, but which was ‘one of the most orderly and best run in the country’.
Black townships remained a neglected stepchild of urban administration. To add insult to injury the Act accepted the formula first developed by the municipality of Durban for funding the townships; its main source of revenue was the proceeds from the sale of sorghum beer to the captive market. The more black people drank, the more funds there would be for housing and other necessities.
The Union constitution of 1909, the Natives Land Act of 1913 and the Native Urban Areas Act of 1923 formed the basis of policy towards blacks for the rest of the century. The Natives Land Act was of paramount importance. Because it made no new land available, the reserves quickly became congested and the limited opportunities for individual tenure were further restricted by the strong support for communal tenure in the traditional African system.
Among some of the more liberal whites the belief persisted that with more land blacks would accept the policy. In 1923 Selby Msimang of the African National Congress said that blacks would be happy with territorial segregation if the Natives Land Act granted half of the land in the country for black occupation. But by now every white leader knew that giving half or even a quarter of the land to blacks would have severe political costs. Whites had come to believe that some 90% of South Africa was ‘white man’s land’, and they were less and less inclined to sacrifice any part of it.